(Adds attorney-general’s comments)
By Elias Hazou
The government on Monday appeared to be getting behind Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos in his long-running public spat with Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides
In a statement, the cabinet said it has “ascertained a series of actions on the part of the auditor-general which either fall outside his constitutional jurisdictions or which interfere with the role and the work of other independent officials or which constitute involvement in the role of the executive.
“At the same time,” the statement added, “there have been observed certain public behaviours by the auditor-general that undermine the serious and credibility of the institution.”
The statement, read out to reporters by alternate government spokesman Viktoras Papadopoulos, did not get into specifics.
Asked whether this should be taken to mean that the president no longer has confidence in Michaelides, Papadopoulos said only that “the statement speaks for itself.”
Michaelides himself released a lengthy statement of his own later in the day, dismissing the notion that he had overstepped legal boundaries.
He likewise seemed to be peeved by the fact that the cabinet took a stance before the attorney-general had ruled on the constitutionality of his actions, as requested by Hasikos.
Calling the cabinet’s statement “vague and generic”, the official cited three cases where his office drew attention to possible illegal practices, following the prescribed protocol each time.
The first involved the Koshi sold waste treatment plant, where he had pointed out that Hasikos acted illegally by renewing the contract without going to tender.
This was subsequently confirmed by both the attorney-general and the Commissioner for State Aid Control.
“Should our office not have even submitted its views on this matter? Is this the kind of auditor-general we desire? One that hushes up illegal actions of ministers?”
The second case related to Hasikos’ approval of student visas for Bangladeshi nationals. Even though the application paperwork in some instances was found to be dodgy, Hasikos had decided to give them the “benefit of the doubt” and approve them.
Michaelides had reported this to the Attorney-general (AG) Costas Clerides, recommending that it might merit a police investigation.
On this, Michaelides cited Clerides, who recently opined that the auditor-general not only has the right, but is moreover duty-bound to report any suspected criminal offences.
The third case pertained to the debt-ridden Kofinou slaughterhouse, which was shuttered in 2013. Hasikos put in motion a call for tender for the leasing of the facility, even though it was technically under liquidation.
Again, Michaelides expressed reservations about the legality of the procedure, and recommended to Hasikos to seek guidance from the AG. The advice was apparently ignored.
In his statement, the auditor-general took exception with the cabinet’s reference of dubious “public behaviours”.
“The cabinet would be remiss if it sought an auditor-general who either quashes various issues because they involve government ministers or one who does not respond to remarks by ministers, remarks which are borderline slanderous and which tend to mock the auditor-general personally, such as references to superstars, emperors, bogeymen, man-eaters, etc.”
On Monday, Hasikos was set to provide the AG with “evidence” suggesting that Michaelides had exceeded the powers vested in him by the constitution.
Commenting on this, Michaelides said his office would “respect” whatever the AG found.
Later in the day, the AG in a statement confirmed he personally received a letter and documents over the matter.
Stressing he had no intention of becoming embroiled in the public spat between the auditor and Hasikos, he noted he would only handle the legal matter brought before him by any state institution.
The AG “will perform his duty objectively and undistracted, independent of any statements, opinions or third party findings.”
A day earlier, speaking to the media, the minister said his evidence concerned the Kofinou slaughterhouse and the Koshi plant.
The AG also confirmed Hasikos had a few days ago sent him information relating to the Kofinou slaughterhouse for him to evaluate.
“The auditor-general’s office dropped hints to the effect I was involved in suspect dealings. It is now up to the attorney general to determine if there is any truth to this,” Hasikos said.
Responding to a question, he confirmed that he would also be asking the AG to look into the role of the state treasurer.
Hasikos claims that in his report Michaelides missed that the state treasurer’s husband was the number one opponent of selling or even leasing the slaughterhouse.
He suggested that treasurer Rea Georgiou had access to inside information which might benefit her spouse.
The minister said he had previously secured a court order allowing the state to sell or lease the Kofinou slaughterhouse after it closed.
But recently he received a letter from the auditor-general advising to “stop what you are doing with the leasing of the slaughterhouse.”
Hasikos went on to allege that a meeting was subsequently held at the office of the Commissioner for State Aid Control, in which there took part representatives of the interior ministry, the treasurer, the attorney-general’s office and the auditor-general in person.
A few hours later, the minister claimed, the court issued a new order forbidding the state to lease the slaughterhouse.
Responding to this point, Michaelides said there was nothing improper with a treasury rep being present at the meeting. There would have been a problem if Georgiou herself was present, he added.